Even in a movie about her life, Rachel Dolezal takes up too much space. It may seem unfair to say that about a movie, Netflix’s The Rachel Divide (released this week), that literally bears her name. But like every piece of media that endeavors to understand human beings with terrible views, the human being with terrible views at the center of this film is the least interesting part of a wider story of a particular community. The movie is mostly composed of Dolezal’s patient but fraught explanations of her identity as a black woman, as she spends the film attempting to prove the existence of transracialism as well as her own oppression as a black woman.
Meanwhile, interviews with the black people around her, who are fighting, in general and in their local communities, to prove that their own experiences of oppression rooted in real-life racism are real, are relegated to providing context for Dolezal’s testimonies. It’s the interviews with the activists, journalists, and residents in her town of Spokane, Washington, that gets at the most interesting part of the film: How destructive the white privilege of even one person can be to an entire community. Unfortunately, the film itself bows to that privilege rather than offering an escape.
As many know, Dolezal was outed as “born white” (as she refers to her whiteness in the film) while she was president of the Spokane NAACP. While in that position, Dolezal led a number of high profile anti-racism demonstrations and efforts both there and in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, two places with known white supremacist presences. However, facing similar doubt as any black person who speaks out against instances of racism, Dolezal was suspected of fabricating stories of hate crimes against herself and her family.
One telling comment about her environment comes toward the beginning of the movie. “Rachel’s complaints that she had been the victim of hate crimes made it appear that racism and the white supremacist movement was making a comeback and because it wasn’t, we felt compelled to out her,” says Spokane television reporter Jeff Humphrey, the man whose fateful interview brought Dolezal to international attention. “She felt that the more that it appeared that racism was making a comeback that more people would want to get involved in shouting down racism.” Such was part of the motivation for the television interview that led to Dolezal’s downfall: the attempt to disprove the existence of racism.
She did not choose her words carefully, and it affected me, it affected my brother.
Whether or not Dolezal’s personal complaints of racism are real is a question that remains contested throughout the film — though, in the end, it’s inconsequential. Dolezal’s son, her former colleague at the NAACP, who is black, a local Spokane journalist — all of whom are black — touch on the racism they’ve experienced in their majority white city. But rather than focusing on how Dolezal was used as a scapegoat for a community’s existing racial divide, the film uses that testimony to reflect back on Dolezal, to offer the suggestion that maybe just maybe she isn’t a complete liar.
Later in the film, Spokane NAACP member Kitara Johnson expands on how Dolezal was a more palatable version of black woman for white leaders in the community to embrace. “The same message was presented by several women of color and we never had any of them receive that type of support in the work that we do and the things that we say,” she says as photos of Dolezal at podiums and holding awards move across the screen. Johnson ends her statement with a knowing, disappointed grin. The film leaves little room to explore the fallout Spokane’s black community now must deal with. Instead, we hear a lot about just how hard it is for Dolezal to continue living in that town.
The most heartbreaking parts of the film are the interviews with Dolezal’s black family members. We meet her sister, Esther, and brother, Izaiah (whom Dolezal went on to raise as her son), talk about growing up in the Dolezal’s parents’ household in Montana. All were subject to physical and emotional abuse at the hands of Rachel’s extremely religious parents. We hear about their struggles with anti-blackness, growing up without the opportunity to take pride in and assert their blackness that Rachel so insists upon seizing now in her adulthood. We hear about how the international scandal compromised Esther’s sexual assault case against Rachel’s older brother.
And we see and hear how much turmoil Rachel’s actions are having on her teenage son, Franklin, who is harmed by Dolezal’s public actions while feeling a duty to protect and defend his mother. Franklin, Esther, and Izaiah’s voices are all present in the film, but like those of the black Spokane residents, they are all used to reflect back on Dolezal in service of rehabilitating her image. Toward the end of the film, Izaiah moves out of Dolezal’s house to Europe, in the hopes of finding himself and escaping the ridicule and attention that follows him everywhere in the U.S. Whereas the few questions I had about Dolezal were largely answered by the film’s end, there were so many more I had for him and his siblings.
Throughout The Rachel Divide I found myself wanting to spend more time with everyone except for Dolezal. Instead, the filmmakers waste valuable time taking us along on Dolezal’s speaking opportunities, scrolls through social media, and the writing of her book. If they were hoping to cast her in a more sympathetic light, they succeeded. By the end of the movie I felt that Dolezal’s “transracialism” was rooted in her own childhood trauma and need to separate herself from it. Still, it didn’t make me like or accept her more. The payoff of understanding her perspective is unsatisfying, and only makes the missed time with the people around her feel like even more of a loss. Despite its attempts at balance, The Rachel Divide is still a movie you have to read between the lines of. As it covers one of this decade’s most legendary scammers, I guess that’s something I should have expected.